That night changed my life. To this day I can’t figure, was it for the best? Or was it bad? Things were different back then, when I lived there. It was always quiet. It was always calm. Everything was open and the fields stretched as far as you could see.
Everyone was kids of farmers, or farmers themselves. Or wives of farmers. Wheat was our town’s lifeblood. Well, wheat and secrets. We loved each other. Not just the little families, not just the little cliques. We all loved each other. The entire town. I suppose that’s what a little secret-keeping does to a group. It brings them all together.
We all knew what was happening, the secret war going on. We all knew the days it would happen. We all knew what was waiting, out there, in the dark. We all knew. We were all prepared.
Those nights, when we knew it was coming, they were dangerous. Our town would go from a bustling little town- where children walked down the street and rode their bikes without fear, where doors and windows were always left open, where everyone knew everyone- into something else. Something worse. No one left their homes. All the doors were locked. Passerby were sent away. You couldn’t tell who you could trust. But the secret must be kept.
Bodies disappeared quietly in our town. Whispers would pass round, funerals would be planned, mourning would take over but missing persons reports were the only thing filed. The coffins for the funerals went down empty. And smoke would drift up out the top of the forest. In this way, the secrets were kept. No outsiders knew.
I still can’t figure, why is it my papa went away? That night, I knew it was coming. My papa knew it was coming. Even my baby brother knew it was coming. Everyone knew. But papa had business in the city, important business. Or maybe his reason for leaving is still a secret. Secret-keeping comes natural for us.
It had been an Indian summer, red hot and vicious. Working in the fields had been hard work but my reward had been golden skin kissed by fairies. Freckles aren’t necessarily attractive on all girls but I’d always been lucky in getting a perfectly adorable trail across the top of my cheeks and nose. I was young and pretty that summer. These are the way we remember these traumas, through the good bits.
The first bitter whisper of winter was in the air; I remember because it smelled of the crispness- that earthy barbeque smell of crispness- that always means winter. It was still warm enough to leave the windows open, if you had the balls. Like I said, no one had the balls.
I was sitting with my baby brother, praying to God that it didn’t come for us while papa was away, when I knew. Every hair on my body stood on end and my brother started screaming. In those days, the days of the secret war, we all knew out duties. When it came to you it was your duty to fight it. For the good of the others. If we didn’t fight it we’d never be rid of it. Some of us might perish quietly, nothing but smoke rising out of the distant woods, but one day we might be free. One day, it might be gone.
My brother was too small; he was a liability. I took him down to the basement, hid him away in the room, settled him down. When he’d quieted I told him he was going to be there until morning, maybe without me. I told him he was getting locked in. He didn’t stir or cry. He knew.
Locking him inside filled me with a lump, a horrible lump. I had a moment of weakness. I was young and pretty, and just getting to be woman enough to be sexy. I wanted life in all its largeness rather than the smallness of death. But I knew my duty. My feet marched me up the stairs.
The shotgun was waiting by the door. Papa must have known it would come to me. He must have known the way it would want me, particularly then. He must have been keeping a very big secret.
The shotgun was bigger than the one I liked. I preferred the 20 gauge, which was less difficult because of its reduced recoil. But papa said to always use the big gun when it came, because the increased field of splatter helped. He even said that maybe the stronger recoil would work to my advantage, thrusting me back enough to push me away from it.
I stepped outside, almost numb. The only thing tying me to the physical world at that moment was the weight of the gun, anchored in both my arms. My legs spread to shooting stance without thought. I had been very well trained. Time to see if all that training had worked.
It would be my first battle with the enemy. I had only been outside with it once before, and that had been as bait while papa shot. That sounds cruel but papa’s a great shot and there are strict rules guiding our secret war. First, and most important, is to keep the secret. Second, and almost as important, is only one death per night. From our side or from theirs is irrelevant. Only one death per night.
Though the night was dark, there was light. Out there in the country there’s always light from the sky. The stars are bright and when we’re lucky, the moon is shining with no clouds in sight. I could smell the edge of crispness in the air, and the wheaty smell that never left our land. The stalks nearest our house still stood high, blocking my view. All I could see was wheat.
Everything was still.
The artificial light coming from the house felt unnatural so I moved away from it, further out the porch. I felt a strange calmness inside, as if I had turned off. The gun in my hands tethered me to the earth. If I hadn’t had that, I think my soul might just have floated away into a different world.
I could smell it out in the darkness, smell the sweat off its body. Or bodies, perhaps. You never knew how many would come, what their tactics might be. I could sense its nearness. Eyes were watching me, big scary eyes wanting a toy to play with. Big scary eyes with big scary teeth attached. And claws that would rip through skin without much resistance.
My heartbeat was rapid in my ears but I didn’t move. My hands didn’t sweat. My legs didn’t shake. The gun was so very heavy but my arms didn’t even begin to fatigue. Adrenaline was making me as unmoving as the creature, biding my time. A moment of weakness could mean death. Behind my eyes all I could see was smoke rising from the woods. Briefly, I smelt burning.
The wheat waved in the wind and I knew it was coming, felt it as if I was psychic. My heart stopped beating as time stood still, every nerve in my body tightening, every inch of my skin pulling in. A wave of fear rose, almost indistinguishably, before the survivor inside of me pressed it back. There was no time for fear because now there was too-quick movement, a flash of several pairs of giant eyes, before they burst into the open.
Great, shaggy wolves. My, what giant teeth you have. The shotgun rested firmly in my shoulder, pressed in tight. Great, shaggy wolves, six, bearing down on me like the hounds of Satan, moving so fast I can hear the wind screaming against their bodies. Their scent, nearly intoxicating.
They were so close, one young brown one already leaping up the porch, before I could pull the trigger. The shotgun nestled between my body and the wolf’s- the only thing protecting me from the crush of its claws- and the blast explodes. My body, thrown into the ground, the shotgun falling away from me.
The world disappears.
Everything is grey.
In my head, wheat is still and silent, but there’s something out there waiting. Watching. I step into the open, scared, I feel the warm wetness of fear all over my body, in my head, on my eyes. And out into the open he steps.
But it’s only Ernie. Relief washes over me. Ernie, my sweet boyfriend. I’m lucky the sun is so good to me because that’s what got us together. Everyone at school loves him, he’s so funny and so good. So sweet. A good football player, clever in class, so tender. Ernie, with his true brown eyes and brilliant smile. My first darling.
We live in the sun together, and when the monsters come in the night we pray to meet again the next day. I pray to God to let me make it through this, to let my shot have been true, to let the monster be dead so I can return to Ernie and papa and my baby brother. I feel hurt, broken, colour is returning to my head. It has to be time to open my eyes.
As sound returns, I try to sit up only to feel pinned down. Rough slates of wood cradle my body on either side, reminding me of caskets. The numbness is gone leaving a screaming panic in my chest, a screaming fear. Am I dead? Fear rolls off me in large swells, giving me another adrenaline rush, enough of one to push up against whatever’s on top of me.
When I try to open my eyes, still weighed down, there’s a horrific, sticky wetness on them. I brush it away, blinking at the world like a newborn, shoving the weight on top of me away so I can stand. The blast took me by surprise, I must have knocked my head because I’m disoriented. It appears that I’m standing in a destroyed little area that just recently had been my porch. Apparently, the impact of the wolf and the blast hitting my body took us down hard enough to destroy the porch.
Papa wouldn’t be happy.
The wetness looked red, deep red. Blood-like. It smelled metallic, and I knew it must be blood. But aside from a little achiness, I wasn’t hurting. It must belong to the wolf.
Looking around, I saw the shape of a naked body and knew that it had been the weight keeping me down. A naked male body, lying there, bleeding all over. Hair that was matted to his head with blood concealing his identity from me.
Who from the town would it be?
That was the worst part of our war, knowing our enemy was someone we loved. Some of the town were werewolves, the rest of us were not, and once a month- on the night of the full moon- we would battle to win. That was why only one death per night. It was all we could take. No matter which side, we all mourned equally. We all loved equally.
I knelt by the body, touching the warm skin, heard choking. A werewolf in his dying moments. By the time I had the courage to turn him over, he was already gone. His body would be next to disappear in smoke. The image I saw will forever stay with me. My sweet, darling Ernie with wolf-eyes not yet faded from the change, ripped to nothing but meat from a hole I’d put in his chest.
That night I learnt what it took to be a survivor, and learnt I already had the skills to kill. It took a while to come to terms with, but in the end, the only thing I regretted was that I’d been dating him. Everyone keeps secrets in our town, but I’d thought he’d been honest. I’d thought he’d been good. I still miss the Ernie I thought he was, but the Ernie that was there was a monster.
Even though I’ve left that town, the war still rages. Once a month a body disappears quietly, in the woods, in the smoke. The whole town loves each other, except on that one night when the line is drawn: us or them, us or them.
Everyone keeps the secret.